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Caught in the Middle
Children shouldn't be casualties of divorce.
By Mike McCurley
The agony of divorce is overwhelming, but
most people are able to bounce back after their divorce. The same is not true for many
children. The more we learn about divorce and its effect on our society, the more we
recognize the long-term, pervasive consequences on children -- the least equipped to
handle the negative effects.
In her groundbreaking study of family members 25 years after divorce, family researcher
and psychologist Judith Wallerstein found that children of divorce are less educated, had
higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse, and had a lower economic status than their peers
-- even their own parents. They were also less likely to marry than other children in
their own age group.
The economic consequences of divorce are well known. Research shows that children's
economic well-being plummets after divorce, in part from child support delinquency, and in
part from a lower household income.
ex-spouses are at war, the chief casualties are their kids.
In a perfect world, the answer to these ills
would be to end divorce. True, there are ways to reduce the divorce rate and theories
abound on how to do that, including abolishing no-fault divorce, implementing mandatory
pre-marital counseling, and instituting longer waiting periods before divorces can be
The sad reality, however, is that some divorces are
inevitable. Yet, they need not take such a toll on our children. When ex-spouses are at
war, the chief casualties are their kids. Steamed that your ex-wife has a new boyfriend?
Withhold child support. Irritated that your ex-husband insists on seeing the kids on the
weekend you had planned a special outing? Spew out a trail of obscenities about their
other parent. Bad ideas.
The key to protecting the children of
divorce is convincing parents to step back from their own anger and see what is really at
stake. It isn't their pride. It isn't their home. It isn't even a few thousand bucks.
What's really at stake is the long-term well-being of their children.
Thus, two people who find it
difficult to be in the same room without screaming at each other must learn to calmly,
deliberately, and most of all, lovingly, make joint decisions about their children's
Fortunately, help to diffuse the
anger felt in a divorce is available. Many jurisdictions have public or private parent
education programs that can help divorcing couples work through their anger. Better still,
many qualified family therapists make their living by assisting such families in crises.
If you're a divorcing
parent, and one of those options is outside your financial or geographic reach, look to
your family, church, or other social organization for help. Divorce support groups can
also be a tremendous help. Many helpful books have been written on the subject. Although
it's far from the panacea that its proponents claim, mediation can also be a helpful aid
in resolving bitter disputes. For help finding dispute resolution resources, contact your
local family services agency, or your local Bar Association.
Divorcing parents, however, aren't
the only ones responsible for helping the children of divorce. We all bear responsibility:
lawyers, judges, grandparents, friends, and bosses. If you know someone who is in the
midst of a divorce, remember that an understanding ear and a sincere offer to help can do
much to diffuse the anger and frustration many divorcing people feel.
It would be easier to ignore the
problems of divorce, but the stakes are too high, and our children are certainly worth the
for Divorcing Parents
Divorce is never easy on kids, but
there are many ways parents can help lessen the impact of their break-up on their
- Never disparage your former spouse in
front of your children. Children know they are "part mom" and "part
dad," and the criticism can batter the child's self-esteem.
- Don't use your children as messengers.
The less the children feel a part of their parents' battle, the better.
- Reassure your children that they're
loved and that the divorce isn't their fault. Many children assume that they're to blame
for their parents' hostility.
- Encourage your children to see your
former spouse frequently. Do everything within your power to accommodate the visitation.
- At every step during your divorce,
remind yourself that your children's interests -- not yours -- are paramount, and act
accordingly. Lavish them with love at each opportunity.
- Your children may be tempted to act as
your caretaker. Resist the temptation to let them. Let your peers, adult family members,
and mental health professionals be your counselors. Let your children be children.
- If you have a drinking or drug
problem, get counseling right away. An impairment inhibits your ability to reassure your
children and give them the attention they need.
- If you are the non-custodial parent,
pay your child support. The loss of income after divorce puts children at a financial
disadvantage, can effect them for the rest of their lives.
- If you're the custodial parent and not
receiving child support, don't tell your children. It feeds into the child's sense of
abandonment and further erodes his or her stability.
- If possible, don't uproot your
children. A stable residence and school life helps buffer children from the trauma of
their parents' divorce.
A divorce lawyer for more
than 25 years, Mike McCurley is a name partner in the Dallas family-law firm McCurley,
Orsinger, McCurley, Nelson & Downing. During his year of service as president of the
American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, McCurley raised awareness among both parents and
legal professionals about the negative effects divorce has on children.
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